Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Iditarod: The Start

The Iditarod start is a little crazy; and that’s an understatement. It’s actually a circus; an exhausting but mostly fun, circus. I spent more than 5 months of training, almost completely on my own, with just the dogs as companions. Then I, and the other mushers, convened in Anchorage for meetings, more meetings, then a banquet, and many, many, many fans who love to have the mushers sign hats, and t-shirts and books, and posters, and even their arms.

Let me back up. Once the food drops were done, I had a couple of weeks to get back to running the dogs and try to maintain their fitness. The snow in Fairbanks was dismal, we just didn’t have any. Aliy and Allen offered to let me go out to their place in Two Rivers and use their 4-wheeler (rather than trailer mine out there). The trails are so big there that I could hook up 20 dogs at a time (!!); yeah, 20 dogs! After I got over the anxiety of seeing the lengthy dog team before me, it became addicting. I could train just about every dog on the team in one run! That was just amazing (I can normally train between 8 and 12, depending on conditions and location). The dogs also did great in such a potentially crazy situation; but they are so use to training in neighborhoods with loose dogs, other dog teams, moose, cars, etc etc. Rick Swenson even passed us once, head on, on a tight corner. He was on a sled, because he’s Rick Swenson, and my dogs were prefect; not even a flinch at having another team zip by us so closely. A proud moment.

Other than train the dogs, the couple of weeks before the start just entailed assembling everything I was going to pack in my sled, going over sled repairs, and sending out 2 sleds and sticking some supplies in each. Most people send an extra sled out the MacGrath; it has a good sized airport (so it’s not too expensive) and it’s shortly after the worst part of the trail (Happy River steps, Dalzel Gorge, the Buffalo Tunnels, and the Burn). Many people have had to scratch because of a broken runner sled through one of these sections. I sent a sled to MacGrath, then also to Unalakleet. Usually it’s the gunners who send a sled to the coast (Unalaklett). They dump most of their gear and use a smaller, lighter, mid-distance sled. I had a 3rd sled, so I sent it. I just wasn’t going to let a sled mishap keep me from finishing. I also stuffed a few extra items in each sled, like a ladle (for feeding dogs), dog bowls, dog blankets, and extra boots.

The starting 16! I have such a small kennel, that picking the final 16 wasn’t hard. Basically, it was everyone who had no lameness issues: Dill, Beaver, Hailey, Simon, Venus, Pepsi, Bullit, Levi, Kobuk, Kiana, Nikki, Pilot, Muggles, Wizard, Weasely, and Hermione. Eight 2-yr olds; 12 of my dogs and 4 of Judy’s; 8 males and 8 females. I was happy with the team. Grumpy didn’t make the team because of a persistently sore hock. I had been massaging and wrapping with linament but I could still see a lameness. This really disappointed me. Grumpy was one of the best dogs in my yard. Little Kora didn’t make the team because of a sore wrist that I just couldn’t make disappear. Sadie stayed home because she has terrible feet. I love that dog. She has great heart, loves to go, and is incredibly strong. But I was afraid that her feet just wouldn’t hold up. Joe almost made the team, and he could, if he wanted to. But he loses focus, and/or confidence in races and I thought it best to leave him at home. Kaligan, a great 2-yr old, never got over a sore shoulder. I have high hopes for him, as he is incredibly focused on running and eating and running and eating. A perfect Iditarod dog. He will prove himself next year.

I had a good team of friends to help with the start: Sarah Love, Clint Warnke, Margie Eastman, and Denali Lovely. Ideally, the musher shouldn’t have to take care of the dogs while in Anchorage. The few days before the race are full of meetings and people, and any spare/quiet moments should be spent resting. So I was able to pry my tight grip off the dogs, with a lot of coaxing, and let my friends feed them and drop them for bathroom breaks.

The Mushers Meeting was the first engagement to attend in Anchorage. It was held on Thursday, March 4, all day. It was impressive to be in a meeting with Lance Mackey, Jeff King, Martin Buser, Hans Gatt and many, I mean MANY, other great mushers. The meeting was filled with talks about itineraries, trail conditions, race rules, etc etc. The meeting concluded with a group picture and a toast. The Start Banquet was held that night in downtown Anchorage. There was also a wine tasting event, just before the banquet. A winery in South Dakota made a special wine to commemorate the 2010 Iditarod, and they made 3 bottles per musher, each with the musher’s picture on the label. A bottle was auctioned off at the start banquet, one at the finishing banquet, and the musher was given the third bottle. The start banquet was filled with a lot of talking; that’s pretty much what I remember. But there was also a lot of visiting with other mushers over a nice meal, and most importantly, we each drew our start number. Each musher went to the podium, in the order that they signed up, and drew a number from a mukluk. I drew #26. That was a nice number; even and pleasant, and not too far forward and not too far back. After drawing our number, we got in an amazingly long line in which to sign autographs. Fans lined up on the other side of a rope divider, and we just walked down and signed and signed and signed and talked to the fans. It made me feel sort of famous and I also realized how much this race means to people. They dig it!

Friday was a day off. It was filled with last minute shopping, and resting, and eating, and visiting.
The ceremonial start was held in downtown Anchorage on Saturday. There is no longer a trail out of Anchorage due to, I believe, population and warming. But a ceremonial start is still head in this large city in order to share the race with the many fans who follow it. The City trucks in snow for the path through downtown, then the trail joins the many miles of inner-city cross-country ski trails to the finish, about 11 miles from the start. The fans in downtown and along the trail were 10,000 plus in number. The ceremonial start also uses the Iditarider program to generate money for the race. Each of the mushers is up for auction and the winner gets to ride in their sled during the ceremonial start. My Iditarider was Joselynn Mott, a veterinarian from Southern California. Her profession gave us something to talk about (although she’s an internist and beyond my cow vet ways), but what I was really happy about, was that she was small! Easy to drive the sled! We got her comfy and warm in the sled and off we went when it was our turn. The dogs did just great during all of this excitement. We had bridges to go over, large culverts to go through, and of course miles and miles of people right on the trail, clapping and yelling and offering hot dogs and cinnamon rolls!

Kiana gives a little love to an Iditarod volunteer at the ceremonial start.

Venus and Pepsi get a pep talk from Clint. I think Venus is more interested in giving a kiss.
The vets getting ready: me, Jocelynn, and Sarah.

Mom sneaking in a free ride to the starting line.
Lots of volunteers helping/holding the dogs at the starting line of the ceremonial start. Look at Hailey (tan dog, sedond in line, on our right).... and hint of things to come.
The end of the ceremonial start. Dogs and people are happy!
The official start was held on Sunday, March 7, in Willow, Alaska. Willow is about 1 ½ hours north of Anchorage. The weather was nice, a little warm for mushers and dogs, but perfect for the fans who lined the trail for many miles. Now I was starting to get a little nervous; not too bad, just a little. I was looking forward to getting on the quiet trail with the dogs; I missed them, as I hadn’t done much with them for the last 4 days! We parked, then started the waiting game, hours of waiting. But it gave me plenty of time to get everything organized and packed in the sled. Clint gave me some last minute strategy recommendations (strategy???? I’m just trying to finish this thing!). It was finally time to get the dogs out, put their booties on and harness them up. Then…… a major bummer blow. Margi was getting Hermione out, when Herm bolted out of the box for some reason, catapulting over Margi’s head and landing on top of Margie in a big crazy mess. Herm came up lame, very lame, on a back leg. Her hock was swelling before our eyes. I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it. This sort of thing happens in a book, or a movie, or some other form of pretend situation; not here, not now, not with me….. and NOT with a dog that is not mine! Hermione is one of Judy’s favorite dogs, and with good reason. She is calm and smart and athletic and only 2 years old. I kept watching her, waiting for the lameness to work itself out, but it didn’t. I knew she wouldn’t be going. That’s when Clint piped up that Grumpy was just 10 minutes away and could be here by snow machine in mere minutes (he was brought down to his owner, my friend Russ Bybe who lives in Willow). So Grumpy made the start after all.

Packing and visiting with Dr. Mike Davis.

Dr. Margie Eastman, Queen Pooper Scooper.

Things then went quickly. The start of a sled dog race is always nerve-racking. There is team after team of dogs being harnessed and hooked up to the gangline. The dogs go nuts. There are 100s of dogs, barking and going nuts. The sound can be deafening. So I gathered my thoughts after the mishap with Herm, hoped for the best for her in my absence, and got focused back on the team. I got the dogs harnessed up and put all their booties on. I then instructed everyone where to place the dogs on the line. Then all of a sudden we are being called up to the line for the start. Mom is getting anxious and I hear her calling my Uncle George so that he can hear all the dogs barking. I am hoping she’ll be ok, I know she’s on the verge of tears, which always makes me on the verge of tears. Julie is a rock, as always.

Clint and Dr. Denali Lovely, holding the team as we go to the starting line.

Getting the team to the starting line.

At the starting line. Someone pinch me!

I am surrounded by dear friends who wish me luck and give me strength. I am reminded how special this adventure is, this trek with me and the dogs. I see the start chute. I’m really here. This is really happening. I’m at the start of Iditarod, and holy crap, I’m driving 16 dogs(I had never driven more than 14 dogs prior to this moment). I hear the speaker say my name, ‘Tamara Rose from Fairbanks……blah blah blah’ then I hear ’10, 9, 8…..’ and my god, look at all the people; where do they end? ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’ and we’re off!